by ALEX HABER
It was the way her body felt on the sand, she’d told him…it didn’t feel nice. If they’d maybe had a blanket, something to set down…but the young man had gone off without responding, leaving her alone on a shadowed stretch of beach in Big Bay.
Beyond the rocks, the sun stood over the lake, casting a bright orange glare along the surface. The cold wind rose and gave the girl goosebumps. She reached for her shirt. They’d had such a nice time on the water that afternoon, swimming despite the season, searching for crayfish and bits of shells along the shoreline. She hated for things to be like this…the way these things seemed to matter more than anything else. A pair of cawing lake birds circled overhead as she finished dressing. She gathered her things and walked barefoot uphill to where the young man had wandered off to.
At first she couldn’t find him anywhere. The tall grass outside the beach scraped her feet, and she rested for a moment to put on her shoes. She thought of calling the young man’s name, but decided against it. She took her time. The trail climbed upward from the beach, branching out into a series of trees, a distant cliff. Eventually she found him farther up, off the trail, bending queerly in front of a tall oak tree on the horizon. She had to squint her eyes. An old man, probably homeless, sat slouched against the tree trunk in front of him. He was the only other person she’d seen at the beach all day, and she could just make out his features in the changing light. He seemed to be unconscious. The girl watched from a distance as the young man reached down toward the old man. When he rose again the young man carried away a small golden bottle that reflected in the sun.
“What are you doing?” the girl asked him, catching up. He drank from the bottle and handed it her way.
“He won’t miss it,” said the young man.
“He’s passed out,” he said. “Drunk.” He drank long and thirsty from the bottle, wiping his lips, and offered it again, but the girl would not accept it.
“You drove us here,” she told him.
“I’ll drive us back.”
“You will not,” she said. They walked away from the homeless man against the tree, not toward the car or toward the beach, but off into the tall, sharp grass. The girl’s hair blew in the wind and she tried to hold it down. The young man continued drinking. They walked single file with the young man in the lead. Neither of them said anything for a while.
“Just stop,” the girl said finally. They’d approached the grassy end of the small cliff overlooking the lake. A breeze swept through and rippled the vast, orange water. “I don’t know why you have to act this way…” she said to his back. “You know I want it the same as you.”
The young man kept drinking. He didn’t turn around.
“But you won’t talk. You never talk. You storm off and act crazy. You steal and you drink and you say you want to drive us home. Can’t we just have a nice time for a change and leave it at that?”
“How can you say that?” he said, turning. “That you want it, too?”
“I do want it,” she told him.
The young man laughed.
“Not here. On the ground, out in the open. Without privacy.”
“There’s no one around!”
“What about that old man at the tree?” From the top of the cliff they could still make him out, a small brownish growth beside the tree trunk.
The young man drank. He moved toward the girl and she pushed him away.
“Not here and not anywhere,” he said. “I’ve given you all the time in the world. I took you all the way here today. To the beach in September. You’re selfish.” He came close again, wetting his lips, and she reached into his pocket and took his car keys.
“Give them back,” he told her.
Now it was the girl’s turn to storm off. She could hear the steps of the young man behind her, crunching through the grass, first moving slowly and then picking up speed. The girl went fast through the grass, back toward the parking lot where the young man’s car had been left. She got in and locked the door and left the young man standing outside, knocking on the glass.
The girl turned on the ignition but she couldn’t drive away. Instead she buried her face into the steering wheel and waited for him to stop. Of course he would stop at some point. He would calm down and get over it. She would drive them both back to Baraga County, and park his father’s car at his parents’ house and walk the half-mile down to Howe St. in the cold. The next day he would call her at home and he would come over and maybe he would apologize. It was not unthinkable. Or maybe after all this she would just give in and let him have it in her bedroom and she would bite her tongue and just be done with it. It wouldn’t kill her. She listened to the bottle break and shatter on the concrete. The sun went down and the sky filled with stars. The young man eventually settled and the girl let him in. She turned on the car’s headlights and checked the mirrors, and driving away, she saw the small, shrinking image of the homeless man. He had risen from his tree and was standing hunched over across the field, wildly searching through the tall grass all around him.
ALEX HABER is a fiction writer from Michigan. His work has been published in The Furious Gazelle, The Bangalore Review, and several other journals. He received his MFA from George Mason University. Visit his website at awhaber.com for more info.